She lies in the hammock, legs dangling, toes barely brushing the slightly damp grass; her arms behind her head and her long hair undone and hanging behind her to dry. She has been swimming all day, and she feels deliciously tired and happy. The light from the stars and the brightness of the moon are reflected off the water from the pool, leaving beautiful little ripples of light all over everything.
She lies on her back and stares up into the sky. There are so many stars here, more than she could have ever thought possible while gazing at them back home. She has seen them like this in books of course, huge coffee table tomes put out by NASA so that the unfortunates in the city could flip the glossy pages and see these stars once in a while, so that children could dream of going into space one day and justify the starships on their sheets and pillowcases. She was one of those children once; wanting to go to the stars and to see everything from the blackest of black between them and the brightness of the moon closer than from millions of miles away. She once covered her entire ceiling with plastic stars that would glow in the dark when the lights were turned off when she was a kid. She thought if she could have them close to her she would actually accomplish something. She is content to watch real stars from Earth now.
That dream has long since drifted away.
For the first time in half her short life she feels truly happy, all the dark thoughts pushed away, the sound of the ocean just close enough to be faintly heard making its eternal battle with the beach. As a child she thought the beach was being bullied by the sea, that the waves were beating the beach in anger because it never got to rest while the beach was able to rest. She smiles as she remembers this. It has been a very long time since she has been to the beach and she is surprised at how much she has missed it.
It seems to have been quiet for some hours now; everyone is still in the house playing games and laughing. Yes, she can hear the faint sounds of one girl's annoying screech cutting through her peace. It is a painful stab in a tender part of her heart. That laugh used to be shared with her, now it is about her most of the time. They have all been inside most of the day, complaining the sun too hot, the water too cold, having no desire to do anything but stay inside and miss the ocean, the pool, the grass. She felt lonely at first, shunned and outcast, but now she is glad for it. She has the whole world to herself out here and finds she misses nothing from inside. She closes her eyes as she corrects herself; almost nothing.
She wishes he would leave the other girl inside and talk to her. She wishes he would sit with her out under the stars, with the sound of the ocean and covered with the beautiful ripples of light off the water. He is the only one she wants to share this moment, this little world with.
She sighs as she knows it won't happen.
Tears flood her eyes as she struggles to find the peace she had with the world just a few moments ago. It has shattered, however, and her head is now filled with pain and regret; feelings of worthlessness. She mentally kicks herself for self-sabotaging her happiness, the first she's had in so long. She raises her hands in front of her to frame the moon and the ripples of light that run along her arms remind her that all her happiness is not yet lost. She smiles, if a little weakly, and pulls herself from the hammock, twists her hair back up and, realizing that it is dry, she laughs. She prefers it wet with ocean water and chlorine.
Diving into the pool is the release she needs. That happiness comes back, all thoughts of him banished for a short while. She doesn't care now, she prefers to swim alone. She glides under the water all pale skin and long legs. She makes it from one end of the pool to the other without surfacing. She never thinks herself pretty, never has, but here in the water, she is truly beautiful. The clumsiness she has on land is erased, the silence from her mouth is justified and the happiness on her face is pure and evident. She realizes none of this; she swims because it makes her happy.
Finally, she surfaces, breathing air that tastes slightly of salt and starlight and a little more like chlorine. She smiles. She takes long, graceful strokes across the pool and flips over to her back to see the stars while she can feel the water embracing her. She floats there and slowly finds a tiny bit of her peace again. She is unaware that the lights from the bottom of the pool make her into a mere silhouette, and that the light from the moon and stars highlight her face and the happiness that has settled there. She doesn't know anyone is watching her; that someone is witnessing the beautiful side of her.
She swims until the tiredness in her body reminds her she isn't a sea creature and reluctantly pulls herself from the water. She throws herself back onto her back into the hammock, taking a childish delight in how wildly it swings from side to side with the force of her body. She looks at her watch and sees that it is midnight. The lights are still on in the house, so no one else is asleep either. She untwists her hair and settles back with her arms behind her head and her legs dangling once more. She won't go inside until she is sure she can avoid all of them. It has been a long week of socializing with people who care nothing about her anymore; all that remains are pseudo-friendships that are frayed as old sailing ropes, the tiniest razor-edge of conflict snapping what is left of them forever.
She is shunned and alone, but she is used to this. It has been this way her entire life. But she remembers being happy once. Truly happy, a happiness that didn't evaporate like the pool water but that remained like the smell of chlorine in her long hair.
Her eyes are closed as she listens to the ocean and feels the warm breezes drying her skin. She feels safe and comfortable alone here and begins to drift off to sleep.
A shift in the hammock startles her awake. She bolts upright and twists around with embarrassment to see who had intruded into her world. She realizes she is still in only her swimsuit; her hair has dried and hangs down to her waist in a straight dark red curtain. She hates her body, her hair, and desperately looks for her towel which is by the pool, unused and futilely far away. She turns to face the intruder, bracing herself for ridicule and teasing, and flushes scarlet when she sees who it is.
He has come to sit with her under the starlight and with the beautiful ripples of light washing over his face. He sits next to her, almost touching, saying nothing and looking straight ahead. She is surprised, confused, and terribly happy to see him. She lies back into the hammock and lets the silence be taken over by the sound of the ocean, so faint it's barely present at all.
She doesn't know why he sits here next to her, but it feels nice just to be near him. She closes her eyes again and waits. She won't be the first to speak, not this time.
You've been hiding from everyone, he says. I was worried about you.
She shrugs in reply.
I know you don't like her, he says. She is silent; he is right. She does not like the girl who was once her friend, his girlfriend. That painful laugh belongs to her, and so does he.
She remains silent.
I know you love me, he says quietly.
She flushes scarlet again and closes her eyes against the tears that spring into her hazel eyes. Of course, I do, you idiot, she says. The first time she has spoken out loud all week.
He is silent for a long minute, the hammock swaying and those beautiful ripples sliding over everything, only magnified and refracted through the tears in her eyes. She turns her head slightly and looks at his profile highlighted by stars and light ripples. It is not a handsome face and it has changed since he started dating her. There is a beard there now, and his hair is more untidy, but it is still a face she likes.
You're my friend, and I wouldn't want to lose you for anything. But I can't love you. It wouldn't be fair, he says quietly.
The tears flow freely now and she turns her face to the stars and asks, to you or her?
He leans over and wipes his palm gently over the tears on her face and says, neither. She is so startled that she looks into his eyes, the first time in months, with tears still standing in her own he is refracted into a thousand sparkling pieces until the tears fall and the illusion is shattered.
What? Not fair to me then? she asks after a quiet minute.
He nods his head. Not fair to you or him, he says. I couldn't love you like he could or wants to.
She doesn't know what to say so she says nothing. The pain in her heart is crushing and it takes everything just to breathe; the tears still come to run down the lines of her face to be illuminated by the stars. The silence is almost as painful as her heart.
He loves you, he says. He will always love you and the best thing I can do for you is to give him the chance to. He stands from the hammock and takes the first steps back to the house as she asks, do you love her then? Is she worth more than me to you?
He stops and stands with his back to her for a moment, the moon and stars shining off his light hair untouched by salt or chlorine, his skin untouched by the sun this long week.
Do you love her? Please tell me, she pleads.
With his back still turned and the sounds of the waves gently crashing so far away she hears him quietly say, yes.
He then walks back into the house, to the light and the games and his girlfriend and leaves her there. She cries for a few more minutes and then jumps from the hammock.
Liar, she whispers and throws herself back into the pool to let salt mix with chlorine and the stars witness her grief.